Tenato logo


Conversations on Cultural Tourism in Vancouver’s Chinatown

The future of Vancouver’s Chinatown is a complicated and divisive topic.

Currently, the neighbourhood is experiencing a demographic shift due, in part, by a domino effect from the neighbouring gentrification of Gastown. Local business owners are retiring and residents are being priced out, meanwhile developers are jumping on the opportunity to start new projects in one of the remaining cheaper areas to build.

In general, critics of these developments argue that the historical context of the building site is often ignored, that the projects cater to the affluent rather than improve the lives of the local community, and that community input is not considered (Maschaykh, 2018). 

For an in-depth discussion on development in Vancouver’s Chinatown, check out this article by Spacing Vancouver.

In September 2018, Premier John Horgan and former Mayor Gregor Robertson pledged to actively advocate for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for Vancouver’s Chinatown (CBC, 2018). A formal designation would serve to protect the area, globally highlight its historical significance, as well as encourage investment in its future. But it’s not a solution on its own, it’s just a step in a direction. As the third largest Chinatown in North America, and as one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, determining what strategy will help the area sustainably flourish, while preserving its cultural heritage, is a critical one.

To explore the many facets of this complex subject, the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British ColumbiaHeritage Vancouver Society, and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden have organized a free series of public forums titled ‘Beyond Pender’. Their latest presentation – “What is Cultural Tourism in Chinatown?” – focused on Cultural Tourism and the key role it plays in building sustainable communities.

The presentations were held at the beautiful Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden.

Speaker 1: Tourism Vancouver

To start, we were given an overview of tourism in the larger context of Vancouver by Ted Lee, the Chief Financial Officer & Commercial Director from Tourism Vancouver. Vancouver tourism accounts for $9 billion GDP and the government forecasts tourism to grow by 6% annually for the next several years (National Post, 2019). It’s a critical industry for the province that has shown strong resiliency throughout the years, only experiencing temporary setbacks during major international incidents, like SARS in 2003.

However, a number of growth challenges for tourism in Vancouver have been identified:

  • Capacity Issues. Since most visits occur during summer, Vancouver has almost reached capacity during this season. Housing issues in the city have led to hotels being converted into residential condos. The Province reports that Vancouver’s hotel industry lost almost 2,000 rooms between 2002 and 2017 (Speer, 2018). The Lions Gate bridge also limits the size of cruise ships that can set out from Vancouver harbour (CBC, 2019).
  • Labour Scarcity. It’s no secret that Vancouver is an expensive place to live and wages aren’t counterbalancing this upward trend. As a result, many qualified employees, particularly in the service industry, are leaving the city (Sherlock, 2019).
  • Lack of New Tourism Experiences. Natural beauty remains the key draw for Vancouver as a tourist destination. That said, Lee remarks that there has been a significant lack of new tourism products. This is a major concern if Vancouver wants to encourage repeat visitors.
  • Overtourism and Eco-Sensitive Tourism. Speaking of natural beauty, Lee points out that overtourism is one of the biggest topics of concern for sustainable cultural tourism. It can lead to overcrowding and long-term environmental issues. For example, there have been recent inquiries into the long-term impact of whale watching on local pods (Hurst, 2018).
  • International Perception. According to Tourism Vancouver, the majority of visitors to Vancouver are from Canada and BC, so there are a lot of opportunities to grow overseas visitations. When international visitors were asked by Tourism Vancouver to rank their experience of the city, those who gave it a low score commented that everything shuts down very early, there’s not much to do during the winter or in the evening, and it’s not known as a “must-go” destination like London or New York.

Speaker 2: Indigenous Tourism BC

The second presentation was given by two members of Indigenous Tourism BC, Paula Amos, Director of Partnerships & Corporate Initiatives and Henry Tso, the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer. As a highly successful non-profit committed to growing a sustainable, authentic and culturally rich Indigenous tourism industry in British Columbia, they had many relevant insights to share.

First, they explained why cultural tourism is so important:

  • It’s an opportunity to share culture and educate the public in new formats. So much of history is taught out of a textbook, which is often written by a third-party. Not only are there often factual errors and bias, but it’s also a very limiting way to share information. Cultural tourism empowers communities to tell their own stories and in ways that are culturally relevant and/or more accessible to different types of learners. Topics can include not just traditional arts and crafts but also difficult subjects like the reverberating impact of colonization and discriminatory provincial policies on Indigenous communities.
  • It revitalizes the culture. The United Nations has declared 2019 “as the Year of Indigenous Languages as an important mechanism to raise international attention about the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize, promote and mobilize urgent and coordinated action at the national and international levels to protect them.” Thirty-four unique First Nations languages and over 90 dialects exist in BC, but only 3% of First Nations people in BC identify as fluent in their mother tongue (McMillan, 2019). By generating interest and investment in authentic cultural experiences, cultural tourism can be a powerful asset. For instance, an exhibition space can be used as an educational museum for the public and generate revenue, but it can also contain private community spaces to support classes like language learning.
  • It provides economic benefits to the community. When Indigenous Tourism BC was founded, it identified 10 market-ready indigenous businesses which were largely focused on accommodations. According to the organization’s 2018 audit report, there are now over 100, creating 7,400 full-time jobs spanning 203 communities, which includes jobs in retail, attractions, accommodations, and outdoor adventure excursions.

Indigenous Tourism BC also elaborated on the unique challenges of sustainable cultural tourism:

  • Coordinating with diverse stakeholders. There are 600 different indigenous nations in Canada and over 200 are in BC. In addition, many cultural experiences and stories are passed down through specific families and there are a lot of oral traditions. For Indigenous Tourism BC, facilitating ways for everyone to work together, be heard, and come to decisions was paramount. While not as vast, decisions on cultural tourism in Vancouver’s Chinatown will also require ongoing input from and mediation between local community groups, business owners, and residents.
  • Determining the cultural tourism assets. What should be shared with the public and what should remain sacred? Throughout each speaker’s presentation, the same sentiment was echoed: When it comes to cultural tourism, tourists don’t decide what is shared. The community does. Decisions need to reflect the needs of the community and a balance needs to be struck between economic development, cultural heritage, and social and urban infrastructure.
  • Maintaining authenticity. Indigenous Tourism BC created the Authentic Indigenous logo to grow awareness about the authenticity of products sold, to make sure artists are being fairly compensated for their work, and to counter exploitation (Griffin, 2014). Amos mentioned that a formal UNESCO designation for Chinatown could act similarly as a signifier of quality and authenticity.
Vancouver’s Chinatown

Speaker 3: Public Discussion

To end the evening, Vincent Kwan, Executive Director at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, directed a Q&A on the future of cultural tourism in Vancouver’s Chinatown. While some of the talking points were addressed in the previous presentations, two concerns stood out as unique to the current situation in Chinatown:

  • Are the safety concerns in Chinatown valid? Safety is a top priority for many travellers and proximity to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has had an influence on Chinatown’s reputation. Lee feels this is a matter of perception rather than fact, which can be mediated through public education. Tso mentioned that a potential solution could be to create a well-defined self-guided tour through the neighbourhood, similar but smaller in scale to The Cultural Journey established along the Sea to Sky Highway. Using interpretive kiosks, clear signage, foldout maps, audio guides, and exhibits, tourists would be more likely to follow the curated and narratively-rich path and there would be fewer opportunities to get lost.
  • How can we protect the heritage of the neighbourhood and avoid “Disneyfication”? Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to really dive into such a deep topic during the forum. In September 2015, Heritage BC published the Vancouver Chinatown Intangible Heritage Values Report where they collected comments from the public and many of the participants mentioned similar fears. As one explained, “What I don’t want it to become is fake, fake “Asian” bamboo decor, mall-court food with fortune cookies, tacky trinkets that say Vancouver Chinatown in some offensive chopstick font surrounded by high rise billion dollar condominiums in an artificially cleansed neighbourhood. I feel that Vancouver Chinatown has significant heritage and historic importance to Canada, it would be a shame to lose that.” As the presenters mentioned, having the local community as the driving force behind decisions, rather than responding solely to the desires of tourists, will hopefully mitigate these potential pitfalls. It’s always important to consider, are the choices being made going to improve the lives of local residents? Are any design decisions an authentic nod to the neighbourhood’s heritage or are symbols being used in an inappropriate or meaningless way?

In Summary

  1. Identify the stakeholders and establish coordination. (Who are the decision makers?)
  2. Define the goals of cultural tourism. (What are we trying to accomplish? How do we determine what are assets are for “sale” and what’s sacred? What does success look like?)
  3. Formulate a strategy. (Who are the target audiences? What do they want? How do we reach them?)

As more and more tourists indicate they prefer “authentic experiences” over traditional vacation activities, the question of how to sustainably grow cultural tourism, in a way that is beneficial to a community while remaining economically viable, remains pressing. The ‘Beyond Pender’ presentation provided an insightful look into Tourism in BC from a variety of perspectives and, overall, the forecast for the future seems full of potential. While there are a number of issues to consider, and no simple one-size-fits-all solutions, these well-attended dialogues show a local community that is ready and excited to meet the challenge.


Amos, P., & Tso, H. (2019, April 10). Indigenous Tourism BC. Lecture presented at Beyond Pender Forum Series: What is Cultural Tourism in Chinatown? in Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver.

CBC. (2018, September 17). World Heritage status would make Vancouver’s Chinatown permanent symbol of resilience, B.C. says | CBC News. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/world-heritage-status-would-make-vancouver-s-chinatown-permanent-symbol-of-resilience-b-c-says-1.4826844

Global News. (2019, April 26). Lions Gate bridge limits Vancouver’s cruise ship capacity | Watch News Videos Online. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://globalnews.ca/video/5209978/lions-gate-bridge-limits-vancouvers-cruise-ship-capacity

Griffin, K. (2014, August 10). Authentic Indigenous label promotes B.C. native artists. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from http://www.vancouversun.com/Authentic Indigenous label promotes native artists/10271184/story.html

Heritage BC. (2015, September). Vancouver Chinatown Intangible Heritage Values Report (pp. 1-91). Heritage BC.

Hurst, A. (2018, November 08). Could a whale-watching ban help save southern resident orcas? Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://bc.ctvnews.ca/could-a-whale-watching-ban-help-save-southern-resident-orcas-1.4167988

Lee, T. (2019, April 10). Tourism Vancouver. Lecture presented at Beyond Pender Forum Series: What is Cultural Tourism in Chinatown? in Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver.

McMillan, E. (2019). First Peoples’ Cultural Council. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from http://www.fpcc.ca/email/email02211901.aspx

National Post. (2019, March 02). Tourism is economic force in British Columbia with 6.1 million visits: Minister. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://nationalpost.com/pmn/news-pmn/canada-news-pmn/tourism-is-economic-force-in-british-columbia-with-6-1-million-visits-ministry

Sherlock, T. (2019, January 23). Businesses face ‘massive’ challenge finding workers in Vancouver. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/01/23/features/businesses-face-massive-challenge-finding-workers-vancouver

Speer, T. (2018, October 02). Ty Speer: Vancouver tourism keeps breaking records but more must be done. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://theprovince.com/opinion/op-ed/ty-speer-vancouver-tourism-keeps-breaking-records-but-more-must-be-done

Share this:

About the Author - Samantha Boone
With degrees in psychology and graphic design, Samantha brings an amazingly broad skill set that includes exceptional graphic design, writing, and illustration talents.